20 Oct 2009

RAFA BENITEZ: High-stakes adrenalin junkie?

As with so many of his compatriots, Rafa Benitez likes nothing more than unwinding over a game of 'mus', a traditional Spanish card game devised in the Basque country, which pits teams of two in a battle of tactics, concentration and collaboration. To the uninformed, mus sounds similar to the sedate, cerebral game of 'bridge'. But Benitez, with his history of taking Liverpool to the precipice of disaster, has more in common with a high stakes poker player.

Does the Liverpool manager need the adrenaline to truly function? Think back through the five years of his Anfield reign – flirtations with calamity are a constant theme. Just as constant are the turnarounds; the sudden clicking into gear, as the team becomes a winning machine.

Last year, the season bottomed out before a trip to the Bernabeu. Benitez was a lame duck; a dead man walking. You could sense the likes of Paul Merson slavering with delight, joyously waiting to put their ‘told you so’ boot in.

But they couldn’t. Liverpool beat Madrid, a result which would elicit constant eulogies if achieved by any of Liverpool’s rivals. After that, Liverpool became invincible: smashing teams of the calibre of Aston Villa, Manchester United and Madrid once again. The anti-Benitez media got nervous. Surely this idiot rotator, with his nonsensical zonal marking, couldn’t win the league?

No, he couldn’t. But that wasn’t due to some confidence-sapping choke. The run-in was almost flawless. Villa’s capitulation at Old Trafford and Howard Webb’s season-defining penalty decision gave United sufficient momentum to finish as worthy champions.

Nor was last year a one-off. Remember Marseilles? Again Benitez was hanging by a thread; again a battling response. And then there is the litany of ludicrous comebacks within individual games. Istanbul is undoubtedly the finest example, made possible by the victory from what looked to be certain elimination against Olympiakos. And what about the Roy of the Rovers FA Cup final of 2006?

There’s a common theme here: Liverpool play poorly; defeat seems inevitable; the team looks like it has thrown in the towel. Then, out of nowhere, everything changes.

Maybe Benitez is just lucky. What is more likely is the spirit of Liverpool FC itself inspires such feats. But if this is the case, Benitez has harnessed that power better than anyone since the end of Kenny Dalglish’s tenure brought the curtain down on years of supremacy.

The ante’s been upped again this season. That FA Cup win is well in the past - ok for West Ham fans to reminisce about, maybe, but the pursuit and winning of trophies is demanded by Liverpool fans, especially after the relative lack of silverware endured during the nineties looked to be a thing of the past. And turning a season around and coming up empty handed is losing its allure. Benitez needs a trophy. Preferably one of the ones competed for this week.

Liverpool couldn’t be playing much worse. Sunderland, a perennial yo-yo team, could have scored a resounding victory, while Liverpool looked to feed off scraps. More worryingly still there was far too great an equality of squad strength between the teams. That’s another debate, though. Liverpool welcomes back two of the best players in the world for this crucial week. Both will need to be at their best.

Rest assured, Sir Alex Ferguson has been fantasising about a last minute Michael Owen winner at Anfield since August. He couldn’t have dreamt it would be all but a knockout blow for his hated Liverpool’s title hopes. It’s make or break time.

Just the setting for Benitez the poker player to strike.

Laurence Kilgannon


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  1. Just hope you're right, mate. The sunderland defeat left me feeling pretty deflated (pun intended). I don't think our performance will be as poor, I don't think it can be, and it was mainly due to the formation rather than anything else. But we still have to step it up massively if we have to win against the Mancs. This is our biggest game against the Mancs since the FA Cup final in 1996, as far as I'm concerned. Defeat and our season is all but over. 

  2. we will remain in trouble as long as lucas starts , why isnt rafa doing the obvious , RAFA YOU THE REASON WHY WE LOOSING NO CREATIVITY IN THE CENTRE

  3. I feel like Liverpool under Benitez make things hard for themselves. The best teams control the ball, keep it, and get their goals as early as possible so they can relax at the latter stages of the match. Liverpool under Benitez seem to have a policy of keep it tight, keep it 0-0 till 65 minutes then try to win. Or if possible hope that torres or Gerrard will conjure something.

    Liverpools players cant be confident when every loss has pretty much followed the same pattern - and Benitez the lover of analysis seems to ignore these patterns. Liverpool's draws last season and their losses this season have been quite easy to predict and also quite easy to fix.    
    The solutions were:    
    1) Last season when playing against teams that want to defend, play with two strikers not 1 .And Benitez should of been more concerned with attacking instead of the usual negative 'stop them scoring mentality'    
    2) This season Liverpool havent got the luxury of an Alonso who can spread the play against the better sides so use the closest alternative - put Gerrard in the middle. And play Gerrard with a DEFENSIVE midfielder - not Lucas! So then Gerard can concentrate on dictating play and being creative rather than just defending and covering for Lucas' weaknesses.    
    Both these problems were obvious before they became problems. And once they became problems they could and should have been addressed. Instead Rafa stuck to the same team and formation that everyone could see was not working. And look what happend - 11 draws last season. 4 losses this season.    
    Rafa refuses to learn from his mistakes, pure and simple. And its hurting Liverpool

  4. Wow, i didn't realise it was that easy, maybe by implementing these 2 strategies we will win every game for the rest of the season :)